What I thought motherhood would look like

Other than a couple brief moments of rocking a swaddled newborn to sleep, I just started having some moments of, “now THIS is what I thought being a mom was going to be like.” And J will be 2 and a half next month. Do tell, what were the images you had in your head of what being a mother looked like? And what do they say about the whacked out ideas (or not?) our culture has about “motherhood.”

Also, here’s a link to the “Becoming a Mother” video series I’m producing.

16 thoughts on “What I thought motherhood would look like

  1. What an awesome question, and reflection. I really want to answer you, but when I think back, what I find is that I had nothing. No images.

    I had never fed a baby or changed a diaper before my first child was born. I wasn’t especially fond of babies/children, not a hater, just not in love with the whole demographic like my own mom (or like I am with puppies). I wasn’t very engaged with popular culture, not a big tv-and-movie watcher. I can’t remember having a single specific expectation about what parenting would be like, except that I was worried that breastfeeding would feel icky (which it did not).

    It was awesome! Because whatever actually happened wasn’t falling short of anything.

    On the other hand, now you have me wondering: why on earth did I WANT to have a baby, if I had no lovely images of what it might be like in my head and I knew it would involve lots of work? I remember wanting to have that adventure with my partner, but … what adventure, exactly? I’m not at all sure. Part of it, I know, was wanting to love someone else the way you get to love people within a family, that big crazy love, and that part has definitely happened.

    1. SO interesting. No images at all. I’m kind of jealous. Did you ever find yourself in the midst of that first year or two wondering if you were doing things “correctly” or “well”? And where did you look for a frame of reference or help early on?

      1. This sounds so totally obnoxious, but no. My frame of reference was the baby, who always seemed to be doing just fine, and my partner: if they were both reflecting back ‘everything’s basically okay,’ then it seemed like we weren’t screwing up. The many advantages I had: 1) world’s healthiest baby, easy breastfeeding from the beginning, no physical scares for either of us during pregnancy/birth/postpartum; 2) truly co-parenting partner who’s naturally very calm and confident; 3) living nowhere near family [SUCKS for practical support, like when you’re sick and parenting and have no out, or when you need more work time but have no help … but can be great for creating a comparison/and-judgment-free zone]; 4) no friends with babies or children [see preceding aside]; 5) I was in the middle of writing my dissertation at the time, and that seemed much easier to fail at than taking care of Noah, because there were actually people who had the authority to say You Fail. I wouldn’t recommend doing 3, 4, and 5 on purpose (especially in combination!)–they resulted in a lot of exhaustion and other sorts of stress–but the big payoff was a level of parenting self-assuredness that I think is really rare and really pleasant. It’s like we got to parent in our own little bubble while we figured each other out.

        1. Sheesh. Jealous again. Really glad you’re sharing this, b/c it creates some new territory for my thinking. Such a good reminder about how different people’s experiences are. I’m a compulsive “everyone must be having my same experience” thinker. So I love hearing this b/c it’s so radically different from my experience. It’s almost like you were able to raise N in a vacuum free of motherhood stigma. JOY.

    2. I am so glad you replied! I read your response below too and I am in the same family MIA boat and had no preconceived notions on motherhood or giving birth for that matter. I have a zen like daughter by the grace of god who has never given me any worries about whether or not I am doing this whole mommy thing right. We are blessed but I’d give up a lot to have to family near by.

  2. As a childless woman approaching her mid-thirties, I wrestle with this question all the time. I don’t really have images of motherhood—it’s been 20 years since I had much face-time with a human being under the age of 10—but I feel bombarded by other people’s ideas of the role. My husband thinks “It’ll be fun!” My Dad says, “You’ll never regret having kids, but you might regret not having them.” Mothers say, “It’s the greatest experience you’ll ever have.” “I can’t imagine what I was doing with my life before I had my kids.” “Do it do it do it!” And they look at me with what seems to be a faraway kind of pity. Yet, at the same time, I can see the bags under their eyes. I can hear their baby’s piercing screams. I can see how irritating and expensive their teenagers are. There’s a lot of societal and familial pressure to get pregnant, especially because I’m no spring chicken and I’m married to a lovely man who wants to be a papa. So I obsess over babies and Moms and pregnancy a little bit. I stare at babies and try to feel some longing. (I suppose I feel some biological imperative, however dim). I watch mothers and try to imagine myself as one, but I draw a blank. The hard part, for me, is imagining the love you’re supposed to feel. I see parents feeling it, staring at their babies, their attention never able to get anywhere else. They seem satisfied, in addition to their exhaustion. But still, my dominant image is probably the scene in Alien when a blood-smeared alien bursts from Sigourney Weaver’s chest. Which makes it kind of hard to go forward. So I appreciate your posts, Steph. It’s nice to get a perspective that isn’t a Hallmark card for Mother’s Day or a 1979 horror film set in outer space.

    1. LOVE your candor, Amanda. I think I shared this too–my images were either super crappy or hallmark card-ish. Such a bummer really, because the reality is quite different and much more interesting and strange, and less on steroids. Did you see the first of the “Becoming a Mother” videos I posted a couple weeks ago? I’d love to hear what you think.

  3. This is a great question! I think a lot of women think that all of the details of being a mother are so innate and natural that when things get really hard of just plain frustrating you begin to wonder you intrinsic womanliness. As a mother I can tell you there is a lot of trail by error and you find what works for you if its bribing your three year old with candy to get him to potty train then so be it (this just worked for me), if its having you hubby wake up for one night feeding so you can sleep more than 3 hours then that’s fine (its survival). What I love now with a three year old son is that he really engages in conversation and it’s so gratifying to hear his mind being creative, picking up on the tiniest details, and blabbing on about nothing. With one more on the way I can’t believe I’m going to do it all again!

    1. YES. on the doubting of the intrinsic womanliness. I think that’s part of the “cultural blindness” I’m thinking of, or a sort of collective illusion that’s created about motherhood–that good moms just KNOW how to do it. Hooray for potty training! With your second baby on the way, what sorts of things are you hoping to experience with #2 now that you have a frame of reference? What are the specific scenes you imagine?

  4. That’s a really interesting question. I think I had a pretty realistic idea about what motherhood would be. With 11 nieces and nephews, close friends with babies and mothers coming in to the pharmacy looking for advice and support, I had some good insight into the whole motherhood thing. I knew there would be sleepless nights, moments of bewilderment, days where i would wonder if I was doing the right thing. I also saw that despite all this, these little creatures were loved and adored by their bleary eyed, fatigued mothers. This was the part of motherhood that I didn’t understand.
    I’ve never been a ‘baby person’ and couldn’t fathom finding joy in something so demanding and unrelenting and difficult. Wih a history of depression, I was terrified throughout my pregnancy that I would develop postnatal depression. I was convinced that I’d end up being able to cope with the practical side of parenting but that I would never find the joy that other mothers seemed to have. Luckily for me and my little family my fears were not realised. I cannot describe the overwhelming love I feel for Boy Wonder, nor explain the happiness he has brought to my life.

    You asked above about the whacked out ideas our culture has about motherhood. I think our culture expects that bonding with your baby and feeling those good vibes comes naturally to all mothers. I feel blessed and lucky that it came naturally to me, but I also know that not everyone will be as lucky. I remember when Boy Wonder was born and placed on my chest I just looked at him and thought “oh ok, there’s my baby”. My feeling of indifference quickly gave way to love and excitement, but that doesn’t happen for everyone. Motherhood is a tough gig, possibly made tougher by the expectation that there will be an instant connection between mother and child.

    Wow, that was quite a rant but that’s my two cents…

  5. I’m also childless for the time being, but I am the oldest of four and basically spent my childhood, especially the early years of childhood, helping my mother raise the other three, particularly my brother (the youngest) because I was seven years old when he was born. My dad spent the first 18 months of my brother’s life halfway across the world with the military, so it was me and my mom running the house, doing the sleepless nights and the household chores and the constant total exhaustion of having a baby and other young children to look after. My brother was born prematurely, too, so there was the added stress of his health and my mother’s in the early months. I have no idea how my mother was feeling, but that experience really shaped my view of motherhood.

    Those early memories, along with the wonderfully sweet memories I have of watching my brother grow up and contributing in a big way to that, have meant that my view of motherhood is realistic, but generally positive. It’s not a bed of roses all the time, but those sweet moments where you hear him entertaining himself and then sneak over and see him digging in his sandbox singing country music songs to himself, or when someone makes a grownup joke and he surprises everyone by understanding it and just LAUGHING, or this year, when I watched him as a senior in high school make the winning play for the football team (remembering that when he was born he had underdeveloped lungs)….those make the hard work and frustration and sometimes total utter sheer panic that you are messing up that kid forever totally worth it.

    I’m a natural leader, a very confident person with a sometimes bossy personality, I follow through with what I say, and it’s in my nature to speak with authority. So growing up, I was able to organize and direct my siblings in ways in which my mother (as a less dominant personality) struggled. (This skill also gave me a reputation as a go-to babysitter for families with challenging children.) The result was that as I grew older and eventually moved out of the house, she was calling me for advice on how to deal with the younger ones. And the result of that was that I had a unique insight into the frustrations and sometimes absolute shittiness of raising children/teenagers.

    I guess I would say that I imagine that motherhood will be a rollercoaster of frustration, unstoppable-force-meets-immovable-object, tears and panic, sheer and utter joy, rage, fear, exhaustion, friendship, desperation, discipline, teaching and learning (from both my offspring AND me), unconditional love, heartache, partnership, and millions of other emotions that I probably don’t even know exist yet. I imagine cholicky baby crying through the night, and being tempted to drug him with a tiny bit of cough syrup because I desperately want to sleep. I imagine countless other scenarios. But at the end of it all, I imagine the good times outweighing the bad times.

    My husband and I are going to try for our first in the next year or so. I’ll let you know how it measures up to my expectations then!

  6. Love the honesty! Lets see if I can be as honest and not sugar coat or pity party my thoughts.

    My dad remarried when I was almost 10 so I went from a single child to the oldest of 5 in just a few years. I’m 14 and 16 years older then the youngest of my siblings, so I have a lot of memories of what it was like with babies in the house.

    I always have remembered this time where we were all puking our guts out, and my (step)mom is puking and has pneumonia, while my dad is out of town. It was hard and miserable and very very dirty. My mental image of what life with children is like is colored by the chaos of this memory.

    My mom, in general, exuded stress. She still does. I remember thinking that things sometimes sucked but would be so much better if she’d just go with the flow. I had built up this idea that when I had kids I’d be more laid back and not such a basket case. It was like I saw our house, with me as the mom and in stead of freaking out about why there’s stuff on the ground, in the future I knew I’d say, ‘lets play a game together!’ In reality, I find myself getting upset about things that don’t matter that much (how clean the house is, mostly) just like mom did. My vision of the stress free mom was pretty warped by my teenage self righteousness.

    I always planned on there being fun times, impromptu dance-offs and lots of desserts. There is and it’s been great. Last night I was in the emergency department at the hospital (turned out to be a burst ovarian cyst) and the way my family rallied around me really made me amazed. It seems that even if I get more stressed than I want, I’m raising a family that deals with stress in a pretty healthy way and I’m grateful for that.

    I’m glad that it’s not all blissful because when I got home this morning and the kids thought my hospital wrist band was so cool, it put it in a pretty good perspective that the good and the bad are all worth it.

    1. “It seems that even if I get more stressed than I want, I’m raising a family that deals with stress in a pretty healthy way and I’m grateful for that.” I love this. And I love your story because it shows the stark difference between our projections of how we will be and the in-real-time reality of being parents.

  7. I have a sister who is 8 years younger than I am, and I was a perennial babysitter/camp counselor, so I actually knew a lot about physically taking care of kids and the energy that would be required. But because I had only taken care of OTHER people’s children, I was totally caught off guard by how different it felt to really CARE for a baby, to love my child and to be loved so completely. So I guess it was the emotional picture that caught me most by surprise.

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